Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia, and author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby. She has served as a judge for the Women’s (then Orange) Prize for Fiction and the David Cohen Prize for Literature, and this year was named a judge of the Man Booker Prize 2014.
Where and when were you born?
Technically I was born in Virginia, while my parents were briefly living there for my father’s work. But I was raised just outside Chicago, where my mother’s family has lived for many generations.
How has this shaped you?
How has it not? I’m not trying to be evasive but being from the Midwest, and my sense of my family’s connection to Chicago, has a great deal to do with how I perceive my place in the world. I love Chicago, although ironically I don’t know it very well any more.
Do you have a personal set of judging criteria that you use for literary prizes?
Yes, but they’re not codified or quantifiable. I don’t like books that don’t like language – it’s their medium, and I want them to revel in it. There are many other ways to measure aesthetic value, and most judges take them into account in my experience, but I think language gets lost too often these days. I can’t stand when judges suggest that something difficult or challenging will be inaccessible to “normal” readers, whoever they are: I think that’s snobbish as hell. I also have deal-breakers: I will not put books forward that have multiple, serious grammatical solecisms, for example.
What would win your academic Booker of Bookers?
You mean books by academics? I mostly hate books by academics. Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of An American Masterpiece is pretty fabulous; let’s give it to him.
You’re a prominent media figure as well as academic. Do you think more of your peers should engage with the public via the media?
I would never tell other people what to do with their careers, and it’s important that we uphold standards and write scholarship that depends upon expertise. My worry is that without sufficient academics being willing to put that expertise into the public sphere, the gap is filled by journalists and producers and members of the public who don’t have that expertise, leaving us with misconceptions, myths, outright errors.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be so afraid, and get to work.
What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
God, where do we begin? Overall, the marketisation of it: the pressures to sell it; the pernicious and false idea that education is a commodity; that its only purpose is for vocational training instead of to produce an educated citizenry; that academics should be experts in their field but also in counselling and career guidance in fields they’ve no knowledge of and no experience in. I could go on.
What keeps you awake at night?
Oh, some things I’m not going to share. Let’s say fear of the dark, figuratively speaking.
What’s your biggest regret?
It’s not so much a regret – I love my life. But I intensely wish that I could see what would have happened to a parallel me who stayed in America 15 years ago. I think she’d have been much less happy and fulfilled, but it’s a strange feeling to have such a clear Sliding Doors moment, when you know your life diverged acutely from a previous path.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Katharine Hepburn. I wanted to be her: so intelligent, tough-minded, independent, elegant, brave, classy. (I’d give myself independent, so far.)
What was your university experience like?
I was a bit of a loner, intellectually precocious and something of a late bloomer socially. (A geek, in other words.) I did a year abroad at the University of St Andrews, which I loved – they were much less judgemental and competitive than Vassar College in the late 1980s. Elisabeth Murdoch was in my class at Vassar, for heaven’s sake. It was a tough crowd.
If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 a year fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
Of course I’d go. I’m American – I paid more than that when I went to university! I think the funding structures here are completely messed up, but that’s another story.
Have you had a eureka moment?
I’ve had plenty of lightbulbs over my head and pennies dropping, but I’m not sure I’d credit myself with a full bathtub moment. Let’s leave it at saying that I don’t understand volume, but I’m pretty good on displacement.